How to actually look smart in team meetings

Haley Johnson
Mar 9, 2020 · 6 min read
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At 26, I’ve had jobs at a handful of different organizations already. Which means I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings.

Pointless meetings.

Meetings where someone drones on and on.

Meetings that could have been an email.

And meetings that I had no idea how to lead.

But no one ever teaches us how to lead meetings. In fact, 75% of employees have never been trained on how to properly run a meeting. We all just learn from our manager, who learned from their manager, who also learned from their manager. So we’re all a bunch of meeting “disfunctionists”.

What no one taught you is that meetings can be one of the best places in the office to show how competent and engaged you are to your manager and other team members.

When I first start at an organization, I minimally participate in team meetings. It’s easier for me to follow the conversation and pick up on the nuances of the team when I don’t focus on making sure I get to speak. I try to soak up as much information as I can and ask questions to further clarify my understanding. I do this for the first 3–4 weeks, and once I have a better understanding of the business and team, that’s when I start to participate in the conversations more.

Up until that point, I want people to know I’m actually engaged and interested in what they’re saying.

A big part of looking smart in meetings is simply being engaged.

So, here are 7 habits I’ve learned to look engaged, and smart, in meetings.

Use your face and body language to look engaged

The body language you bring into the room has a significant impact on your mindset and how other people perceive you. To show you’re engaged in the meeting, sit upright in your chair instead of sliding down or slouching to the side.

Keep a poised, neutral face when you can. Ensure your neutral face doesn’t look bored by slightly raising your eyebrows, which opens your eyes a bit more. Practice this in the mirror so you don’t look like a crazy person.

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Maintain eye contact with the person speaking and nod when something resonates with you. A slower nod can indicate, “That’s an interesting point, I’m considering this,” and a faster nod can indicate, “I’ve experienced this, you’re totally right.” Context is key here though, listen to the conversation to make sure your nodding makes sense.

When someone is saying something that you find interesting, lean in, put your hand on your fist. Positively reinforce good behavior with attention!

You can actually remove attention from someone if they are taking up too much time. This works best if you have more authority to dictate the energy of the meeting (like the boss, manager, or leader of the meeting).

The whole point of these body language tactics is to enhance what you truly feel and reinforce good meeting behavior. If someone has diverged onto a tangent about an irrelevant topic, don’t give them attention. If someone is constantly taking the conversation away from the topic at hand, don’t reinforce it with nodding.

Come prepared

Bring a notebook to jot down notes. Pay attention to what people say and take note of things people say that seem important.

I write down things like…

  • Upcoming events or important dates to put in my calendar.

If there’s an agenda (which there definitely should be), think about the topics ahead of time. Come up with ideas and questions to talk about for each topic.

Be encouraging when other people speak

Use positive reinforcement when other people speak up and are engaged in the conversation. Say phrases like,

  • “That’s a great point!”

Agree, and expand on other people’s ideas. This is using the classic improv technique called, “Yes, and…” where you accept what the person says as reality and continue the discussion on that point.

If someone has been interrupted, direct the attention back to the original speaker and say, “Tanya, what were you saying before?” Tanya will feel like her opinion matters, and you respect her enough to bring the attention back to her.

If you disagree with what someone is saying, don’t say that you disagree. This can make the person feel confronted, put down, or annoyed. Rephrase your thought into something that starts with,

  • “We might also want to consider…”

It’s all about making people feel heard and appreciated.

Ask thought-provoking questions

If you’re new to the team or not yet confident in sharing your ideas, it’s easy to start with asking questions. It might even be helpful to write down a few questions ahead of time in case you don’t think of any in the meeting.

Questions may be:

  • “What would it look like if…”

You can always use a phrase like, “This may be a total newbie question, but what does this mean/why do we do this?” You might question some of the underlying processes and get people thinking about alternative options. This is a BIG win when you’re trying to look smart.

Your questions should add value to the conversation and not reroute it down a different path (unless it was on the wrong path to begin with).

Stay off of your phone and email

Have you ever been talking to someone and they suddenly become absorbed in their phone? Even if they say they’re “listening” they’re not fully engaged and present in the moment as you’re speaking. They’re missing out on the facial expressions and gestures and potentially some of the actual words you’re saying.

*Stat about people on phone/email in meetings*

Make sure to stay off of your phone and email in meetings. Even though everyone else might be doing it, the person speaking will notice that you’re engaged. Or, at the very least, they will not make a mental note of you being distracted, which is also good. If you bring a computer to take notes, quickly jot down your note and turn your attention back to whoever is speaking.

Act as the translator

If the speaker has trouble communicating their thoughts or the receiver has trouble understanding, try to rephrase what the person is saying in another way. It might be helpful to come up with a metaphor or story to illustrate a complicated concept.

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You might say, “I think what Phoebe is trying to say is….” or, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it might be helpful to think about it like [use a metaphor here]…”

There are a couple of people on the ETW team who are immensely good at this. I feel especially appreciative of this because sometimes I have trouble communicating my thoughts.

Give appreciation and praise to others

Making other people look good will make you look good. If someone helped you with your work, thank them in front of the team. When someone did a great job with a client, but you were the only one to see, give them praise in front of the whole team.

If you can get people to leave the meeting feeling good about themselves, they will feel good about you, and that leaves a lasting impression.

You don’t have to be perfect at any of these habits. Heck, I’m not perfect at any of them. Sometimes I nod when unnecessary, don’t prepare for meetings as much I should have, or miss opportunities to make people feel good. But slowly beginning to change your behavior using these habits will make you more engaged and productive, and ultimately look smarter, in your meetings.

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